Monthly Archives: June 2016

Could Lessons In Personality Help Teens Cope With Social Stressors?

personalityA new study from David Yeager suggests that teaching teenagers about social and personality traits could help them cope with certain social challenges such as bullying, which in turn could help with stress and lead to higher academic achievement.

Peer groups are vitally important to adolescents, much more so than for adults. While adults aren’t always worried about not fitting in with their peer group, teenagers possess a heightened desire to be accepted by and into the group. Social exclusion causes them anxiety which can in turn impact young people’s wellbeing and academic achievement. Teenagers cause no end of frustration for teachers and parents due to their change in behaviour when they have been excluded from a friendship group, and while we might comfort them there is little that can be done to calm the anxiety exclusion can cause. This anxiety (or the attempt to prevent it) coupled with a brain unable to inhibit risk taking, means that teenagers are highly influenced by the group they are worried about being excluded from. The transition from primary school to high school can be particularly difficult.

According to Yeager:

Adolescents are very focused on peer social hierarchy and status, and when they transition into high school, they are put into a situation where they have to figure out where they stand. Often, teenagers think if it’s going to be hard now, it’s going to be hard forever. That’s stressful for them.

Yeager suggest that teaching students that socially relevant traits are malleable, rather than fixed, can make them feel better prepared to face social challengers as opposed to viewing them as threats and thinking of them as lasting realities. Yeager’s research (to be published in Psychological Science) used two double-blind studies to monitor teenagers physiological responses to stress and how the lessons in personality could improve cognitive, physiological and behavioural responses to stressful situations as well as academic performance.

In the first study, Yeager and his team monitored cardiovascular responses as sixty teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 prepared and delivered a short speech on what makes people popular before completing a series of maths equations. Prior to undertaking the task, half of the teenagers were told that people and their socially relevant traits were changeable. Those teenagers who were exposed to this idea reported feeling less threatened by the task, exhibited higher cardiac efficiency and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also performed better on speeches and the maths problems.

In the second study, 205 ninth grade students were tracked throughout the school year. Half of the sample received lessons on the idea that people could change (the intervention group). The students were asked to complete daily diaries where they reported all the stressful things that had happened to them, were asked how much they could deal with the stressors noted in the diaries and provided samples of saliva to measure the levels of stress hormones. Those students in the intervention group coped better on the days where they reported more stressors and were also exhibiting higher Grade Point Averages than their peers seven months later.

The study builds on work by Carol Dweck and other self-theorists whose research indicates that by exposing students to messages surrounding change and adaptation, it is possible to help them cope with stress, raise levels of resilience and obtain higher academic success. Although Yeager stresses that such psychological interventions don’t represent ‘magic bullets’ but can be seen as a ‘progressive step forward in the research process of addressing the wider public health issue of teenage stress’.

Mental Health, Concept Creep and Moral Panic.

mental-healthI don’t tend to read ‘columns’; I find them opinionated and often lacking in substance (a bit like a discussion on Twitter or some of my blogs). However, I was directed to a recent piece by Tom Bennett in the TES on mental health.

Now, I think I’ve made it clear in the past that I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the current debate surrounding the existence or otherwise of a child mental health crisis. This isn’t to say that I’m uncomfortable commenting on mental health, it’s just that the changing landscape of diagnosis and classification along with the controversies surrounding the latest diagnostic criteria mean that I just don’t know what to think. Nevertheless, here I am commenting on that very topic.

Bennett, behaviour advisor to the government and director of IdeologyED ResearchED, makes a number of pertinent points, some of which I alluded to in a blog post back in May. The most important point is that mental health is something that we need to get right – it’s far too important to fuck up.

But a moral panic helps no-one, least of all those vulnerable young people who need help most.

The point, I think, that we both agree on is that child mental health and it’s relationship to education policy is creating a moral panic rather than a need to establish the facts. Debra Kidd, in her recent blog ‘No Mental Health Crisis?’ makes a brave and valiant attempt to support the crisis hypothesis, but Kidd (like Bennett and like me) isn’t a mental health professional – we are amateur observers who interpret the findings and read the reports from altered perspectives.

In a recent paper Psychologist Nick Haslam makes some important observations related to this  (Haslam, 2016). Haslam suggests that society is taking psychological concepts and applying them erroneously to normative human behaviours; everyday ‘worry’ becomes pathologised as ‘anxiety disorder’, sadness as ‘depression’. So-called ‘concept creep’ works on a number of levels, reshaping society and creating more sensitive populations who must, in some way, be protected from everyday horrors; the need for resilience has replaced ordinary courage.

One worrying observation is that mental health appears to be populated by non-professionals, especially when it comes to child mental health and mental health in schools. The appointment of the recently deposed ‘Mental Health Champion for Schools’ Natasha Devon is perhaps one such example. Devon’s intentions are certainly laudable and the bravery with which she has taken on such a dispassionate and emotionally barren government is, in my mind, worthy of praise. Whether her knowledge of the complexity of mental illness, it’s diagnosis, classification and treatment is strong enough to warrant her influence, however, remains questionable.

So who do we listen to?

This is a major problem. There are a number of individuals on the speaker circuit who advise on mental health issues and have published books on how to respond to mental health problems in schools. Many aren’t mental health professionals and it is obvious that some have only a passing understanding of the psychology behind mental health and the complexities of diagnosis and classification. I recently received feedback from a publisher on a manuscript I’m currently circulating about the role of emotions on learning. To be clear, the manuscript details normative functions, the way they impact learning and how teachers can work with them. There is a chapter on anxiety but, again, in terms of everyday processes rather than extreme circumstances. The publisher liked the idea but insisted that I include more extreme behaviours (they actually singled out suicidal tendencies). I could have complied and perhaps even been looking at publication, but such areas are far beyond my knowledge and expertise, so I declined and submitted elsewhere. There is certainly a desire for such publications – I would argue against a need for them however, especially when written by amateur observers.

As I (and Bennett) have said, we need to get mental health right and we need to receive the right information from the right people. There will always be controversies and I suspect that it will be some time before we manage to reconcile the medical model of mental health (with its emphasis on neurochemical and genetic explanations) with more nurture related and environmental theories. Teachers aren’t mental health professionals and the danger is that those most in need of help get lost in the moral panic.

References and Further Reading:

Haslam, N. (2016). Concept creep: psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology. Psychological Inquiry. 27 (1). p.pp. 1–17.

How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm, The Atlantic.

Self-determination in the Classroom.


Edward Deci and Richard Ryan view motivation in terms of different types, and like earlier researchers stress the importance of intrinsic motivators over extrinsic ones. They suggest that people have three basic psychological needs.

The need for competence:

Our desire to control or master the environment and outcomes. People want to know how things are going to turn out and they want to know the results or consequences of their own actions.

The need for relatedness:

Our desire to interact with, be connected to and experience caring for other people. Everything we do in some way concerns others and our actions impact on those around us. Through this need to build up a sense of belonging develops the feeling that we are part of a wider world beyond the limits of ourselves.

The need for autonomy:

The urge to be causal agents and have full volition and choice over what we do. If autonomous motivation concerns choice, then controlled motivation relates to the lack of choice. Ryan and Deci describe it as ‘behaving with the experience of pressure or demand towards specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self’. Autonomy, however, does not necessarily mean acting independently; it merely means acting with choice, so it can mean acting alone but also acting interdependently with others.

The main premise of Ryan and Deci’s theory involves the role of self-determining factors (hence their theory is known as ‘self-determination theory’ or SDT). SDT is a theory of human motivation, emotion and development concerned with factors related to assimilative and growth orientated processes in people. The theory’s primary concern is with the factors that promote or prevent people from intrinsically engaging in positive behaviours.

In order to be intrinsically engaged we need to feel that our actions are based on choice and free will, even if such feelings are illusionary. Motivation, therefore, becomes intricately entwined with emotional states such as interest curiosity and boredom. How motivated we are is often related to how we feel; whether a task bores us, excites us or sends us into a state of anxiety or helplessness. Yet, motivation isn’t just about internal states – environments play a major role.

The interpersonal climate of the classroom, for example, can have a major impact on motivation, especially motivation of the intrinsic kind. Teachers, classrooms and schools all differ in terms of the control they use. Some might be highly controlling, relying heavily on the absolute authority of teachers over pupils, strictly adhered to rules of behaviour and consistent and heavily relied on extrinsic reward and punishment procedures. Others might be more liberal in their approach towards control, allowing students a greater say in how and what they learn, implementing more restorative behaviour management policies and more flexible classroom rules. Schools represent complex systems and some might require more stringent behaviour management policies than others. A greater emphasis on rules doesn’t always have to mean a more controlling environment.

The emphasis here is on the nature of control. Highly controlled classroom environments undermine intrinsic motivation while autonomy supportive classrooms nurture it. This doesn’t mean that extrinsic reward systems don’t work in the classroom – they often do, so long as the interpersonal classroom context remains informational and supportive rather than critical and authoritarian. Conversely, positive feedback given in a controlling context will also tend to decrease intrinsic motivation. Classroom environments that encourage autonomy (autonomy-supportive) lead to greater learning and performance outcomes than controlling styles and there is ample evidence that suggests that practices and policies that rely on motivating pupils through sanctions, rewards and evaluations (and other forms of coercion and manipulation) undermine quality student engagement.

While controlling environments often stifle motivation, autonomy-supportive classrooms that foster interest, value and volition encourage greater persistence and better quality engagement and learning. Autonomy and competence are essential to the maintenance of intrinsic motivation – it’s difficult to find an activity either exciting or enjoyable if we feel we have little control over what we are doing. In his 1968 book ‘Human Causality’, educational psychologist Richard deCharms described this as our ‘internal perceived locus of causality’, meaning an experience that emanates from within ourselves rather than from any external source (our perceived locus of causality can be both internal and external). Intrinsic motivation, therefore, represents a locus of causality that is internal, although there it often occurs on a continuum.

Students must feel both autonomous and confident if they are to sustain intrinsic motivation so that a student who feels competent but feels that they have little or no autonomy will be unable to maintain intrinsic motivation.

Teacher and classroom style is often a prickly subject and is often dictated by personal ideology. Authoritarian teachers maintain that an approach that insists on things being done correctly, that students should be told what to do and use a number of controlling strategies lead to more manageable classrooms and more positive outcomes in terms of exam results.

Others emphasise the importance of allowing students to be more self-directed, to learn from their own successes and failures and to solve problems for themselves and, although I have known teachers at both extremes, the majority of teachers fall somewhere between them. There is a growing view in education that there exists a uniform way of teaching and that as long as these skills can be taught to teachers outcomes will improve. However, many of these skills appear authoritarian in nature (even going as far as punishing students for failing to track the teacher’s movements). Unfortunately for us, authoritarian teaching styles appear to do little in terms of intrinsic motivation and related educational outcomes. Early research conducted by Edward Deci found that in classrooms where teachers were more autonomy-supportive, students tended to be more intrinsically motivated, displaying behaviours such as curiosity, a preference towards challenge and greater mastery orientations. They also felt more competent in their schoolwork and had higher levels of self-esteem.

Cross-cultural evaluations appear to support this. Wendy Grolnick and Richard Ryan found that evaluative pressure undermined students’ intrinsic motivation and their school performance in the USA while Kage and Namiki obtained similar results with Japanese students. Additional cross-cultural studies have found that interest is enhanced for lessons where the teacher is autonomy-supportive but diminished when the teacher is more controlling.

The hypothesis has also been tested in various subject domains. Martyn Standage of the University of Bath compared student and teacher ratings of autonomy, autonomy-support, confidence, relatedness and self-determined motivation in physical education. Standage found that perceived autonomy-support was associated with higher levels of autonomous self-regulation, including intrinsic motivation and these, in turn, were associated with greater effort and persistence.

These and other studies are suggestive of a number of important points.

1. Teacher orientation and certain aspects of the learning task play a role in the development of intrinsic motivation. Teachers perceived as autonomous-supportive nurture students higher in intrinsic motivation than those teachers with more authoritarian styles – and this remains consistent across cultures.

2. Where children are high in intrinsic motivation and are taught in environments that support autonomy, they display a tendency towards better learning, especially on tasks requiring conceptual understanding.

3. The way in which teachers introduce learning tasks is important in that when tasks promote the basic psychological needs of autonomy and competence they allow for greater intrinsic motivation and deeper learning. If these basic psychological needs are not met, intrinsic motivation and achievement suffer.